The Death, Rebirth and Revolution of the Book
by Kristin Darell (Prescott)
First published in Kindling III: A Writer's Edit Anthology
Writer's Edit Press, 2016
ISBN-10: 0994165536 / ISBN-13: 9780994165534
I am a bookworm of the highest degree. As a child, walls of shelves around me were filled with books of all sizes, styles, colours and genres. Piles of novels sat precariously on my bedside because who really could choose just one at a time? I used to wonder what happened to my book friends when I closed the covers and turned out the lights. Did they get up to mischief? Did Trixie Belden solve more mysteries? Did Peter Pan battle Captain Hook then crow with victory as he flew into the night? I certainly hoped they did.
As I grew older I discovered more literary delights. Shops piled with unread stories, and that smell, unique to the pages of those precious tomes, records of imagination, a time capsule of life. This love affair would never end, or so I thought.
Then we found ourselves in 2011. After 125 years Angus & Robertson closed its doors, along with Borders stores Australia-wide. Numerous independent bookstores followed while others held on, refusing to give up. Headlines screamed the death of the traditional book and bookstore, slaughtered by online shopping, department store discounts, eBooks and rapidly declining sales.
Were traditional books doomed? Was it an anti-book revolution or an evolution of the book and, by extension, us as readers?
The Start of the Story
The first book published in Australia was in 1802. The NSW Standing Orders compiled by convict George Howe was far from a bestseller but a first step none the less. A convict was also responsible for Australia’s first published novel. His name was Henry Savery and the book published in 1830 was called Quintus Servinton, the story of a man who makes poor choices in life. Australia’s first children’s book, A Mother’s Offering, was published in 1841 by an anonymous author. In 1980 that author was discovered to be Charlotte Waring, the great-great-great-great-grandmother of two of Australia’s now most successful authors, Belinda Murrell and Kate Forsyth.
These early authors lit a flame that has been passed down generations and inspired countless others to pick up their pens and share stories of the world and their imagination.
The stories I read as a child – for example, The Famous Five or Anne of Green Gables – tell of a very different world to the one we live in now. Our children read books filled with technological references so easy for them to understand, but so far from anything we knew at that same age.
So what influences an author’s decision to write a particular story – tales of vampire love, young heroes in dystopian worlds, visions of the future, stories of sickness or the joyful truths of our daily lives? As readers do we influence authors, or do the stories authors decide to write determine how our reading choices change?
A Literary Chicken and Egg
"It’s very much a chicken and egg situation," says Sophie Masson, one of Australia’s most successful authors for children and adults. "As an author, you are also a reader and can be influenced by things you’ve loved yourself. But you can also help to lead taste if you hit the right spot at the right time."
Sophie certainly knows how to hit that spot, with more than 50 novels published locally and internationally for children, young adults and adults.
"It’s kind of weird alchemy that is completely unpredictable," she says. "For instance, who predicted that one author’s vision of the adventures of an English bespectacled boy wizard in a boarding school would become the global reading phenomenon of a generation across the whole world?"
The idea for the Harry Potter series was conceived by J.K. Rowling while delayed on a train travelling from Manchester to London King’s Cross in 1990. It would be another seven years before readers were first introduced to the world of Muggles and wizards, and the school called Hogwarts. Ten years later the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, became the fastest-selling book ever. The Harry Potter series is now published in 78 languages with over 450 million copies sold. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t at least know of the boy with the lightning-shaped scar.
But while the Harrys of this world exist, many authors are more deliberate and careful when choosing the subject matter of their books and they do it for a variety of reasons.
Louise Park is one of Australia’s most successful children’s authors with total sales of over three million books. She also holds position nine on the prestigious ‘10 Best-selling books of all time in Australia’ list.
"I think what readers want doesn’t really change a lot," she says. "I think they want a compelling read, to be transported and sustained in another world. I think they want believable characters that they love and care about so much that they don’t want to leave them."
Louise is the creator of childhood literary staples such as the Zac Power series, the Boy vs Beast books and Bella Dancerella, and she too has inspired a generation with her stories. But Louise is observing a change in the literary wind. While she doesn’t believe readers are necessarily expecting more, she as an author does, and the result is her new series about a little girl called Harriet Clare.
"The format is very unique," she says. "The books are standard chapter books with a hard cover and a ribbon bookmark. Every ten pages or so Harriet asks the reader for advice or their thoughts on a situation. So the reader actually writes and draws in the book. I did this for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to take the relationship between reader and text to a deeper level. The interactive component ensures that the reader truly steps into that world, into that character’s shoes, into her mind, her heart and her soul. The pages provide opportunity for the reader to reflect on what they’ve read, to consider what they would do if that were them. It lifts their level of comprehension, enhances their understanding and empathy and they get to complete Harriet’s secret notebooks with her!"
According to Louise, her second reason is to encourage kids to get back to the good old basics of childhood and to write by hand.
"Remember the days when we did bubble writing, created our own borders, made our own cards, kept diaries? The days before we did it all with a click of a mouse in the clip art folder?" she asks. "I felt it was critical to ensure that Generation Z didn’t miss out altogether with the increased use of devices and computers. It’s time to restore the balance between those wonderful devices and writing and drawing by hand."
The Technology War… or is it?
Digital reading technology has already significantly changed how many people read. Kindles, iPads and other e-readers are no doubt here to stay and have played an important role in encouraging people to read whenever they have a free moment. Especially for adults, thousands of pages can be contained within one slim little device, yet the stories remain true and unchanged. However, the book is holding its own. We just need to find a way to maintain a healthy balance between the methods of delivering stories, not fight a war where only one side can emerge victorious.
"In an increasingly device and high-end-electronic-toys world, it’s never been more important to get it right," says Louise. "I think the hard-copy book has a lot of longevity still, particularly for children. Children still want books. Children still need to hold books, turn pages, revisit them."
Sophie agrees. "I don’t think that eBooks are really that important in terms of reading choices. They can be very useful and convenient and I’ve read more than a few myself, but I much prefer print books. I find that I get deeper into the story."
Sophie says her eBook royalties are miniscule compared to what she earns from her print book sales.
"Kids and young adults just don’t read eBooks, so the market there is very small. I think that the eBook market is a good complement to the print one but it has now settled into what might be its natural level. It certainly will not displace the print book as was the prediction some time ago," she says. "What has made a very big difference though is that the digital revolution has impacted enormously on printing – in a good way!"
So how is technology changing the brief?
Joining the Digital Revolution
Instead of competing, authors and publishers are increasingly looking to technology to add value to traditional book offerings.
From a printing viewpoint, what Louise has created with her Harriet Clare books would have been technically impossible just a few decades ago. The use of colour pictures, books of unusual shapes and sizes, and creative fonts and formatting have only become possible and affordable as digital technology advanced.
Paul Macdonald is the owner of The Children’s Bookshop, the oldest bookshop in New South Wales. He has also worked as a teacher of Upper Primary and Secondary students for almost twenty years.
"Book design is significant," he says. "In a digital age, many push boundaries of print book design to grab attention."
Independent booksellers hand-sell great books and play a crucial role in shaping the reading market. According to Paul, graphic novels are on the rise.
"In an age of multi-literacies, visual literacies and multiple platforms, the graphic novel has a secure and indeed growing position in the market," Paul says. "Illustrated texts such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid dominate the market. Graphic novels such as Manga and DC and Marvel comics remain strong."
Other best sellers cornering this market include the Treehouse books phenomenon that began with Andy Griffiths’ 13 Storey Treehouse and is growing taller every year. Then there’s Anh Doh’s WeirDo series, now numbering six. Also within this graphic format are books such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, a story told through words and illustrations and capturing imaginations worldwide.
As well as providing new formats to read, authors are using the many technological tools available to add value to their product. Websites dedicated to characters, interactive apps and much more can be the tipping point for many readers, particular teenagers and young adults.
"Links to other media, such as movies for example, are also a driving force, as is social media hype, particularly for young adults," says Paul. "Strong narrative is the deciding factor though. A good story always wins the day."
There is no doubt these added extras help bring more people to the world of books. Without the Divergent movies, would Veronica Roth’s story of a post-apocalyptic dystopian Chicago divided by factions have been the bestseller it is? What is certain is that our ability to make movies from books, to create websites in which people can interact with fictional characters, to bring characters to life in apps and so much more, are aspects of reading and books that are now here to stay.
Sophie believes all these extra elements to the telling of a story are also changing us as readers.
"I think that what has grown is a greater sophistication in readers in terms of handling different kinds of narrative," she explains. "Such as multi-voice narratives, those that use different time frames, including looping back and forth; those that build slowly and tighten their grip on the reader, and those that use multiple characters. Film and TV series have made readers more tolerant of more unusual narrative frameworks."
While readers are still reading, is there also a price to be paid for these shifts in both how we write and the types of books written to maximise attraction in a technology-dominated world?
The Evolution of the Reader
Are we less resilient as readers? Are we more prone to close the book?
"I think readers have less patience with non–visual texts and there seems to be a lot of research to validate that," says Paul.
According to the Australian National University, "reading resilience is the capacity to undertake and discuss the complex and demanding work of interpretation required by literary and rhetorical texts."
And there is this concern: "Students are increasingly skilled in visual literacy, but 'display less and less patience with [non-visual] texts, especially long ones'. The erosion in reading skills is not only a significant loss in its own right – students’ failure to complete assigned reading is affecting curriculum development in literary studies in ways that are not always clearly articulated."
According to Paul, improvements in the design of print books, the cover or even hooks to entice the reader can and will be employed to draw people in, "but hopefully today and in years to come the best hook, the best means of increasing reading resilience, is to offer the opportunity to become entranced by a great story. That has always been and remains the challenge for the author. To offer great stories," he says.
Finding the balance
"What hasn’t changed is the need to get it right with hard copy books," warns Louise.
Having worked as General Manager and Education Publisher at Scholastic Australia and now within her own publishing business, Paddlepop Press, Louise knows what it’s like at the heart of the process determining what manuscripts see the light of day.
"Publishers publish for a whole host of reasons," she explains. "Because there’s a gap in the market for something, because there’s a need for a particular category or subject matter – whether that be vampires, books for reluctant readers or something else, because there’s a fad taking off – mindful colouring books, for example. A publisher’s list will often determine what they’ll publish next. It’s all about looking at the list, reading the market trends and knowing what will hit the sweet spot."
But Louise acknowledges it isn’t always as simple as putting good books on bookshelves, particularly when dealing with younger readers.
"The problem with how readers choose books is that there are so many different types of readers and variables. Are parents having input? I hope so, because some children will pick up a book simply because the cover has pretty, sparkly treatments on it. Some will pick up a book because it’s part of a series they love. Some simply want what their buddy’s reading. This won’t always end up with the right book in the right hands for the right reasons."
As founder of the independent publisher Christmas Press, Sophie says she considers what she likes as a reader and creator of books, and more.
"We also consider what might be missing in the publishing scene and what might catch a reader’s eye," she says. "But we especially consider the beauty and fun of both words and pictures."
Why Story will always be King
So let’s return to our chicken and egg. What came first? What’s driving this reading revolution? I think the closest we can come to an answer is to say all of what we’ve discussed herein, on both a conscious and subconscious level. The reality is we will never know exactly why an author needs to write a story or why we choose a particular book to read at a particular time. What we do know is that books are a time capsule, a snapshot of life and its influences at a particular moment. How the world influences books is as distinct and unique as how it impacts us as individuals. No two perspectives will ever be completely the same, but there is one common thread.
"Retro rules," says Paul. "Parents and grandparents want to share their childhoods by placing books they loved in the hands of grandchildren and children. Kids can often see the passion in the hands of the giver and thus willingly embrace tales from the past. They want to connect."
"I think readers want the same as they always have done," says Sophie. "Great stories that transport them; vivid, intriguing characters they can feel for; to be surprised, gripped and moved. In terms of books as objects, they want beautiful things."
"As a society we are good at valuing and celebrating great writing and great books, beautiful covers and gripping back cover blurbs," says Louise. "I think story is still king and always will be!"
There is no doubt that what, how and why we read is constantly changing, adapting and adjusting. Technology inspires new ideas that feed the imaginations of authors. People face new experiences that inspire them to share. Children grow up understanding different things about the world around them, with different skills and interests. I marvelled at my Commodore 64 and floppy disk player unable to display anything but letters and words. Our children take touch screen technology, internet and space travel as a given – what will their dreams make for the future?
One thing I am now sure of is that books are not under threat. There will always be those who love holding their imaginary worlds and literary friends in their hands to revisit. Particularly children. But even for adults, books will never die, because our need for stories and love of them will always exist.
Instead of fearing technology and what it means for books, we need to continue to embrace every tool that will allow us to record, enjoy and share the stories of our time and our world. This is our legacy as writers and readers. It isn’t ‘The End’, just new chapters for us to explore and enjoy.